Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review – Love for Life

February 9, 2012

Love for Life – China, 2011

Changwei Gu’s Love for Life was a difficult film for me. I say this right off the bat because I think it will be the same for many other people as well. It’s not that I felt the film was bad or that I wasn’t moved by many of its characters, but rather that I felt culturally estranged from the film at times. At several points, mental red flags went up in my brain, and I could help thinking just how wrong what I was seeing was. Case in point: a pivotal scene that is intended to show two characters coming together for the first time. I have used the word intended because from my point of view the feeling was not mutual. In the scene in question, a man named Deyi Zhao (Aaron Kwok) is sitting on top of the roof of a school next to a young woman named Qinqin Shang (Ziyi Zhang). The two of them at first engage in a bit of meaningless banter, and then they reveal a few rather personal details about their lives and their marriages. We soon realize that they indeed have a lot in common. The scene would work perfectly if it stopped there, for it would show the first stage in their eventual friendship and possible relationship. The problem is that the scene continues.

Soon Deyi, a married man with a son at home, puts forth his version of an indecent proposal, rather bluntly suggesting that the two of them become more than just friends. Qinqin, who is also married, declines his request; unfortunately, Deyi either doesn’t get the message or simple chooses to ignore it. I’m not sure anyone can watch what happens next and not see Deyi as nothing more than a brute that doesn’t know his boundaries and for whom no seems to have an entirely different meaning. However, a scene or two later, here’s the victim of his unwanted affection sneaking off to a makeshift room for a little bit of forbidden romance without a single scene between the two of them that might explain her apparent change of heart. In essence, we’re expected to now view the earlier scene in a different light. It’s not that she was unwilling, but rather that the timing was wrong. How convenient.

Other parts of the film were equally challenging but for far different reasons. In on scene, Deyi talks about missing his mother, who died ten years earlier. I expected the scene that transpired to feature Deyi talking about his mother and how much she meant to him. Instead, Qinqin chimes in and in her sweetest voice tells him that she can be his mother now. That’s not all. As his “mother,” she’ll do all the cooking and cleaning, too. Deyi can even call her mom if he wants to. And apparently, he does, for throughout the rest of the film, he actually refers to his wife as his mother. I know this is not uncommon in certain parts of the world, but there’s a difference between referring to your wife as mother in front of your children, which is what happens in 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, and calling your wife mother because you miss your actual mother. In some countries, such a remark would prompt a phone call to Dr. Phil as quickly as possible.

And yet the film’s more difficult scene has Deyi and Qinqin standing on a chair with a noose around each of their necks waiting to see which one of them blinks first. Neither one of them wants to die, we’re told. It’s just that they don’t want the other one to die first. The unsettling thing about the scene is that the people that wrote it clearly intended for it to say something beautiful about Deyi and Qinqin’s relationship. If it does, then I’m certainly the wrong audience for the scene, for all that went through my head was the thought that I was being emotionally manipulated. In addition, the film’s choice of a narrator may leave some people feeling uneasy, yet if you accept the film’s premise that there is an afterlife, it becomes a little easier to swallow.

Having said all the reasons why the film made me uneasy, let me now explain what I admired about the film. The film takes viewers to a village that is just awakening to the horrors of the AIDS pandemic. From the film’s opening scene to its final one, viewers witness a story very reminiscent of the kind that played out in many parts of the world in the early 1980’s, when the mere mention of AIDS was enough to make people flee in terror. In Love for Life, we see this scenario play out in the late 1990’s, after many villagers became infected with HIV after donating blood and then having it put back into them. The film shows us villagers not infected with the virus turning and running away when they see them, as well as deliverymen dropping their packages a distance away and driving off as quickly as they can. One merchant uses a retractable claw to return people’s change, fearing that even the slightest touch will result in the disease spreading to him. I remember when people thought this way in the 1980’s, and it’s still incredibly tough to watch.

The film juxtaposes moral responsibility with moral bankruptcy in the same family. In one of the film’s opening scenes, we witness an elderly man ask for forgiveness from those he has probably known all his life. It was his son Qiquan who caused the village to become infected. And if that were not traumatic enough, we soon learn that the elderly man is doubly cursed, for his younger son is one of those infected with HIV. The only thing he can think to do is offer to take those people infected with the disease up to the school he runs. There, away from the residents that fear the air they breathe, he says he’ll take care of them. This is indeed an admirable man, and the scenes with him in them are some of the best in the film.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, the elderly man’s younger son is Deyi, and it is at his father’s school that Deyi meets Qinqin, who has also contracted HIV. Earlier I outlined my difficulty with certain aspects of their story, yet I should also mention that their relationship eventually makes sense, and there is even a beauty to it that is quite refreshing. Watch Qinqin’s expression as she reads an important announcement over and over again towards the end of the film. It’s clear just how deeply she loves him and just how much making the announcement means to her.

Unfortunately, Love for Life misses as often as it connects. For every heartfelt, believable moment, there’s one that is likely either to cause discomfort or make you shake your head at its unwise attempts at comic relief. There’s nothing wrong with adding levity to a serious situation, but there’s nothing funny about a man scaring away neighbors by asking them if they want his disease. When real people say such things, it’s often a survival technique, something they do to reassure themselves that they still have some control over their environment. It’s not material for a comedy – at least not the way it is presented here. However, the film eventually won me over. Ziyi Zhang gives a decent performance, and Aaron Kwok is good enough to rise above some questionable screenwriting decisions. I also appreciated the sensitivity with which director Changwei Gu approaches the film’s characters and his handling of the residents who are not infected. They could easily have been presented as uncaring monsters; here, they’re people who just don’t know enough to act any differently. I’m sure we’ve all known people like that. In the end, Love for Life is watchable, but I suspect many people will view it as a missed opportunity. (on Blu-ray in Region A)

2 and a half stars

*Love for Life is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

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